This post was updated in August 2019.
Japan is a beautiful and interesting country with gorgeous nature, ancient temples, fantastic food and wonderful people. When planning a first-time trip to Japan, most people visit Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.
And while these places are definitely worthwhile, Japan offers so much more! In this post you will find the best places to visit in Japan off the beaten path, especially for nature and outdoor lovers.
Off the beaten track Japan
For many people the Shinkansen bullet train and an overload of neon lights are the first things that come to mind when they think about Japan.
For me it was the magnificent and varied nature of Japan which impressed me the most.
Let me show you a different side of Japan, one of mountains, lakes and snowy trails. Of volcanos and sakura trees. Of Shinto gates, Japanese castles and even a steaming lake…
Included in this post are:
- Lake Shikotsu
- Hell Valley
- Oyunuma Thermal Lake
- Matsumae Castle
- Mt. Komagatake
- Shiragane Blue Pond
- Farm Tomita
- Lake Onneto
- Hiroshima Castle
- Mount Misen
- Mount Koyasan
- Kenroku-en Garden
- Matsumoto Castle
1. Lake Shikotsu (Hokkaido)
Hokkaido is the northernmost island of Japan and in my opinion one of the best places to visit in Japan. Why? Because Hokkaido is wild, untamed and gorgeous. We spent 10 days driving around Hokkaido and it was definitely a highlight of our Japan trip.
Pictured above is our tent on the shores of Lake Shikotsu. Lake Shikotsu is located withing easy driving distance from Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido. Lake Shikotsu is part of the Shikotsu-Toya National Park and a beautiful and peaceful place.
Both Lake Shikotsu and nearby Lake Toya are caldera lakes, formed from collapses in the earth after volcanic activity. This isn’t very surprising since Hokkaido is still brimming with volcanic activity (read more below). Furthermore, Lake Shikotsu is Japan’s second-deepest lake (265 meters deep).
There are several hiking opportunities within the National Park and around the lake. Be sure to check with the Lake Shikotsuko Visitor Center to inquire about the condition of the trails, paths may be blocked as snow can last until late June!
2. Hell Valley in Noboribetsu Onsen (Hokkaido)
Jigokudani, also known as Hell Valley, is a spectacular place near Noboribetsu Onsen, a little village on Hokkaido. It’s a fascinating place, full of vibrant colors, steams vents and bubbling mud pools.
There are several (short) hiking trails leading through the park. Be sure to follow the path along the river, Oyunumagawa, flowing out of Oyunuma Lake (below) for a natural hot foot bath!
3. Oyunuma Thermal Lake (Hokkaido)
Oyunuma Pond is a lake in the crater of Mt. Kuttara. You may wonder why the lake is steaming? I understand, so was I as I had never seen something like this before!
This very special lake has a surface temperature of 50 degrees Celsius (at the bottom the temperature is a whopping 130 degrees Celsius!), hence the spectacular sight of a steaming lake.
4. Matsumae Castle (Hokkaido)
Matsumae Castle is the only Japanese style castle on Hokkaido. While first built in 1606 to defend the area from the Ainu ‘barbarians’, the castle was burnt down and rebuilt several times throughout history.
The best time to visit is during Sakura (cherry blossom season), as there are over 10.000 cherry trees within the grounds of Matsumae Castle. In fact, Matsumae Castle has been named one of the top 100 cherry blossom spots in Japan!
When visiting Matsumae Castle, I also recommend to hike the Hachijuhakkasho Circuit, an easy trail leading along several Buddhist statues and monuments.
5. Mt. Komagatake (Hokkaido)
Mount Komagatake is a dormant volcano in Onuma Quasi National Park. Standing over 1100 meters tall, it’s easily visible from afar.
There are some nice short walking trails (15-60 minutes) in Onuma Quasi-National Park, as you can walk from island to island over the bridges that connect them.
Alternatively, you can rent a canoe (only during summer season) and peddle out onto the lake or hop on a bicycle to cycle around Lake Onuma.
6. Shiragane Blue Pond (Hokkaido)
The Blue Pond in Biei (near Furano) is a must visit Japan destination, it’s such a fascinating place! The color of the pond varies throughout the year, on this site you can see pictures of the Blue Pond during all four seasons.
The combination of the vivid color of the water with the white dead trees gives the pond a mysterious atmosphere. We visited in May, which is said to be the best time to visit because the cobalt blue color is most pronounced during this period.
Nevertheless, the Blue Pond is worth a visit no matter the time of the year!
7. Farm Tomita in Furano (Hokkaido)
Farm Tomita is famous for its lavender fields, but there is much more to see and do on the farm. For starters, you can buy a lavender ice cream! It tastes a little weird at first (perhaps you are reminder of toilet freshener. No? Just me?) but it’s actually really good!
You can visit Farm Tomita throughout the year, I was there in May which was too early to see the pretty purple fields. The surroundings were stunning nonetheless and I really enjoyed walking through the fields and learning about the different products that are made on the farm.
There are greenhouses, the Lavender Museum, a gallery, gift-shop and much more. You can easily spend a whole day exploring Farm Tomita!
8. Lake Onneto (Hokkaido)
A very special places on Hokkaido is Lake Onneto in Akan National Park. Onneto means ‘the aged, large lake’ in Ainu language, but the pretty lake is also called ‘five color lake’ because it changes color depending the time of day, the weather and the wind.
There is an observation desk on the west side of the lake as well as a trail leading entirely around it. The circular loop is generally well maintained, however, snow can block parts of the trail until early June! Read more about Lake Onneto here.
Important note: the road to lake Onneto is closed between mid-December and mid-April.
9. Hiroshima Castle (Honshu)
Hiroshima castle has been completely reconstructed in 1958 after being destroyed by the atomic bomb, as was everything else in Hiroshima…
The reconstruction was done perfectly (duh, it’s Japan!), inside you can find a museum with interesting information about Japanese castles and the history of the area around Hiroshima.
10. Mount Misen on Miyajima Island (Honshu)
While the island is most famous for the impressive floating Torii Gate, there is also a 532 high ‘mountain’ that can be climbed. There are three different trails leading to the top:
- The Momiji Dani Route (90 minutes and 2.5km one way).
- The Omoto Route (2 hours and 3.2km one way).
- The Daishoin Route (90 minutes and 2.5km one way).
From the top you’ll have a beautiful view over the island as well as over the Seto Inland Sea. On a clear day you may even see as far as Hiroshima!
11. Mount Koyasan (Honshu)
I had never heard of the Koyasan Choishi Michi pilgrimage trail until a friend who used to live in Japan told me about it. And I’m so glad she did as hiking the Koyasan Choishi Michi trail was one of the coolest things of my Japan trip!
This 24 kilometer long trail leads from Kudoyama station through the forest all the way to Koyasan. And while there are many beautiful and colorful temples on Mount Koya (like the vermilion Kongobu-ji pictures above) the hike itself was the highlight for me.
Hiking the Koyasan trail was magical, we were the only ones on the track and fog was drifting through the forest, damping the sound of our footsteps and creating a mysterious atmosphere…
I highly recommend this trail to any outdoor lover visiting Japan!
12. Kenroku-en in Kanazawa (Honshu)
Japanese people love their landscaped gardens and one of the most famous of those gardens is the Kenroku-en garden in Kanazawa.
This garden is revered for possessing the six attributes of a ‘perfect’ garden (according to Chinese landscape theory): spaciousness, seclusion, artificiality, antiquity, abundant water and broad views.
Entrance to the garden costs 310 yen, however, if you are prepared to get up really early you can visit for free.
13. Shirakawa-go in the Japanese Alps (Honshu)
Shirakawa-go village is famous for its traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are more than 250 years old. The houses are designed to withstand the large amounts of heavy snow that fall during the harsh winters. So they are not just pretty to look at, but more importantly, they are extremely functional!
There is a nice viewpoint near the village, from this hill you can overlook Shirakawa-go and the Sho river.
14. Kamikochi (Honshu)
Another highlight of my Japan itinerary was visiting Kamikochi, located in the Japanese Alps! The combination of exquisite nature, beautiful hiking trails and a well managed campsite makes it the perfect place for outdoor enthusiasts like myself.
There are lots of hiking trails in Kamikochi, we hiked to the halfway point at Dakesawa (due to snow we couldn’t go any higher) and to the top of Mt. Yakedake.
Mt. Yakedake means ‘Burnt Mountain’ in Japanese and it’s one of the 100 famous Japanese mountains.
Mind you, this is not an easy hike!
The 900 meter ascent to the 2455 meter high top involves climbing several ladders and the last part you’re struggling up loose rocks at an almost 45 degree angle. Nevertheless, the view from the top is worth the effort!
15. Matsumoto Castle (Honshu)
Matsumoto Castle is one of Japan’s most famous castles and a beautiful building, both from the outside as well as from the inside. Also known as the ‘Crow Castle’ because of it’s black colors, Matsumoto Castle is one of Japan’s five castles designated as a National Treasure.
Interesting fact: while it looks like Matsumoto Castle has five floors, it actually has six floors!
The third floor is invisible from the outside and is also called ‘Kakushi-kai’ which means ‘Hidden Floor’. During was this floor was used to store equipment and food and serve as a shelter.
Japan off the beaten path: in conclusion
These are some of the best off the beaten path destinations to visit in Japan! I hope this article has inspired you to explore these lesser-known Japan destinations, each and every single one mentioned is worth it!
Besides the places on this list, there is much more to see and do in Japan! Read more here: